Resource: The Snuffbox, The French Admiral and the Lieutenant’s Wife

3 January, 2011 at 5:50 pm Leave a comment

Another naval gem from the Antiques Roadshow, but this time, the really interesting bit is not some invaluable item found in the attic –  it’s the story behind it.

This golden table snuffbox showing Paris originally belonged to French Admiral “le comte de Grasse” (François Joseph Paul de Grasse, marquis de Grasse Tilly), who was beaten in battle by Admiral Lord Rodney. (de Grasse is best known for leading the French fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake – where he was not beaten…).

The gentleman who brought the snuffbox along didn’t know which battle it was where the admiral was captured by the Royal Navy, but it must have been the Battle of the Saintes in 1782.

He became a prisoner of war in “America”, and was put in the custody of the uncle of the great great grandfather of the gentleman who now owns the snuffbox (too many greats and grands here…). The painting here shows said great great grandfather, and as you can see, he was with the navy.

When Monsieur le Comte finally returned to France (where a court martial awaited him), he gave the snuffbox to his custodian, Alexander Littlejohn, “for civilities shown and services rendered him during his residence as Prisoner of War on parole, at Kingston in the Island of Jamaica, A.D. 1782”.

Aww… but wait, we’re not finished yet, because there’s a really lovely story to be told about the great great grandfather as well: our officer here served in Woodlark and ran aground off Calais, ending up as a prisoner of the French for nine years. But he had only been married for a year when this happened, and so his wife travelled by fishing boat to Holland, then overland to France – and spent the whole nine years with him in captivity! If that’s not love, then I don’t know what is!

Unfortunately, the name of the officer wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but thanks to the “note of dedication” in the snuffbox, I had something to work with.

It appears that his name was Thomas Innes. As usual, hunting ships of the Napoleonic wars on the internet was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually, I found the Woodlark! This document (an extract from “Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy” by William O. S. Gilly, 1857) proves that Lieutenant Thomas Innes was the commanding officer at that time and became a prisoner of war in 1805.

From other documents (blessed you be, google books!) we learn that the Woodlark was “wrecked near St Valery to the eastwards of Calais, because of an error by her Pilot” on the 18th of November (some say 13th), 1805. Only good news about it: the “crew was saved”.

The snuff box was valued at £ 5000 – £ 8000, by the way. But the story behind it? Priceless.

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Entry filed under: 18th century, art, resource, royal navy, ships. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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